The Creation of the Doctorate in African American Studies at Temple University: Knocking at the Door of Eurocentric Hegemony

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/8/2009

The Emergence of an Idea

The pathway to the creation of the first doctorate program in African American Studies at Temple University was not straightforward, direct, or immediate from conceptualization to execution. It had begun as an idea, an idea only, while I was sitting in either Boniface Obichere’s, Ronald Takaki’s or Gary Nash’s history class at the University of California, Los Angeles, nearly twenty years earlier, listening to lectures on the nature of the African presence in America. What if there could be an entire department devoted to the study of this phenomenon? What if a university could create a school that would explore every facet of the African story of civilization, from the earliest of times to the present? These were questions for daydreaming, but what was not a question for dreams was the telling of the African story in America. I always believed and knew that such a story would have to be told from the African perspective because if people told it from any other perspective it would not be the African’s story. At that time, the late l960s it was difficult to hear the authentic voice of the most numerically significant ethnic presence in America. This was prior to the creation of Black Studies departments and most African American history classes. The idea was a kernel of energizing agency in my mind. Studying the colonial history of America in preparation for my dissertation and asking where are the Africans had catapulted me forward.

The Departmental Situation

By the time I arrived at Temple University as full professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies I had already directed the UCLA Center for Afro American Studies where I had established the Master’s degree program, chaired the Department of Communication at SUNY-Buffalo, and for a year simultaneously chaired the Departments of Communication and African American Studies. My interest in developing graduate programs had been tested at SUNY where I had overseen the recreation of the doctorate and Masters programs in communication.In addition, I had served as the director of the diploma program for journalists at the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communication in the early l980s.

In 1984 I came to Temple University in Philadelphia with the mandate to rebuild its faltering department of African American Studies. It had been a program of some significance during the decade that had passed and had suffered at the hands of several deans whose only inclinations appeared to be the elimination of every vestige of the program. One after the other of the deans had begun by forcing faculty members out of the department, not tenuring others and when they left, not replacing them. The department had fought vigorously for its integrity.

The decimated faculty did not take the assaults without a fight. They fought internally through committees and externally through community organizations. They were all committed to the department’s mission and believed that the attacks on the department were politically motivated and accentuated by the unbridled racism that appeared to hold some of the white faculty members in an iron vise. Like other universities of the period, Temple’s faculty included those whites who believed that there was not enough substantive information to have a department of African American Studies. They used terms like “lowering of standards” and “feel good programs” to castigate the intellectual enterprise of examining phenomena from an African standpoint.

A Brief History
Temple’s Afro-Asian Institute was created in l971, making it one of the first programs during the great wave of departmental and programmatic creation during l969-72. It was the most dynamic intellectual program in the Philadelphia area, bringing to Temple, which is located in a heavily African American community, a new resonating insight into political, economic, and cultural issues. The program was designated the The Afro-Asian Institute initially but it soon changed its name and purpose becoming the Department of Pan African Studies. Finally, in l984 the name was changed to the Department of African American Studies. The Afro-Asian Institute, heavily influenced by the Muslim students, was a program; Pan African Studies took the form of a department with a reporting mechanism that was comparable to other academic departments and the establishment of an undergraduate degree.

There had been a struggle for recognition and legitimacy from the very first creation of the Afro-Asian Institute. Faculty members at Temple regularly called for the abolition of the program. Its students were constantly harassed and some of the faculty who participated were intimidated by colleagues who wondered how they could squander their time and career on something as ephemeral as Black Studies. Numerous African and African American faculty members paid for their involvement in the department’s battles with collegial and university committees by being refused tenure. The department persisted in its academic rights and succeeded in gaining a faculty of thirteen, including the adjuncts and part-timers, by l977. Professor Odeyo Ayaga was the chair of the department and he immediately began to establish contacts in the University, the city and the state governments. Odeyo Ayaga was a remarkable leader at a time that demanded stedfastness, integrity, and commitment to the intellectual project of African American Studies. I am indebted to him for sharing generously with me his impressions of the university and his insights into the political nature of the Temple campus. Since I was new in Philadelphia, he graciously passed on to me his contacts and sources from the various government and civic bodies.

The Creative Context
When I arrived at Temple there were only three professors in African American Studies: Odeyo Ayaga, Alfred Moleah, and Tran van Dinh. All other departmental faculty members had been chased away, humiliated, denied tenure, or otherwise forced to change departments (Wilbert Roget, Sonia Sanchez, and John Davis). Professor Dinh took early retirement in the Fall of l984 and that left three of us in the department. There was an air of optimism on the campus because a new administration had taken over the university and a new dean would likely be coming aboard. The community sensed the possibilities inherent in such a situation and demanded to see a rebirth in the department. The highly valued Community Education Program had been left languishing and a community leader, Maisha Ongonza, was leading the remnants of that program and essentially running the day to day affairs of the departmental office.

It was my belief that both Professors Ayaga and Moleah were exhausted by the constant battles with the administration. They had become experts at writing memoranda to defend the department and their understanding of the mission of the undergraduate program. They had put up as good afight as possible given the fact that Ayaga was Kenyan and Moleah was South African. Both had been radicalized by their involvement with the department because the type of racism they confronted at Temple was different and unexpected; they vowed to save the department but knew that they had to save themselves first. Stress took its told on them.

I informed them that even with three faculty members we had to propose what we saw as a revitalized vision of the department and fight for it. They essentially said, we have had our fight, now it is your time. With swiftness and because there was some hoopla around my appointment I took advantage of the momentary goodwill by proposing to hire three new faculty members over the next two years and introducing a Masters degree. The Provost gave me the green light on the hiring but did not commit to the graduate proposal which had to go through the university committees.

The Initial Proposal: The Master’s
Using the programs I had written for UCLA and SUNY I drafted a graduate program in African Amercan Studies to be submitted to the Graduate Committee of the College of Arts and Sciences. There already existed Masters programs at Cornell University, Ohio State University, UCLA, Yale, SUNY-Albany, and Atlanta University. What was different in my conception was the elevation of the Afrocentric paradigm as the instrument to guide programmatic development. It seemed to me that most of the departments had no clear philosophical basis to the aggregation of courses that existed in their programs.

I proposed two divisions: cultural aesthetic and social behavioral. Courses were created and grouped according to these concentrations. For example, in the social behavioral track or concentration I included seminar courses such as: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, JR., Cheikh Anta Diop, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston. Some courses were proposed but not approved.

In the cultural aesthetic track or concentration I included courses such as the following: African Aesthetics, Ebonics, African American Drama, African American Art, Negritude, and African literature.

All students had to take three core courses regardless of the track that they chose as their principal area of concentration. These courses included Proseminar in Graduate Studies in African American Studies, African Civilization, and Research Methods in African American Studies.

The initial reading of my proposal by the Graduate Committee of the College produced considerable discussion and the academic scramble. Some professors felt that there was just no way that African American Studies was going to have a graduate program. They did not believe in it as a field or a discipline and that it represented a catering to the notion of “relevance” in education. Others believed that such a graduate program would cheapen the graduate programs in English, history, and sociology, bringing unnecessary competition for a decreasing pool of students. Still others said that no students would enroll in the program because they would want to have degrees that were more traditional. Perhaps the harshest criticism came from Emma Lapzansky, a black history professor who was in the Dean’s office as an assistant. Lapzansky wrote that the program “would ghettoize” education. My response was that our aim was to correct the ghettoization of education inasmuch as Temple’s curriculum and departments without us was nearly a ghetto of whiteness in curriculum, departmental theories and methods, and faculty representation. After my response there was silence from the Dean’s office and soon thereafter Emma Lapzansky left the university. No other opposition to the program surfaced in letters to me; others I know objected to the proposal but were careful not to write their objections. They whispered that there were limited materials to teach at the graduate level in African American Studies. But they spoke out of ignorance and did not have to be confronted head-on except as I handled all of the objections in my several revisions of the proposal.

The Doctoral Possibility

Once the Graduate Committee of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences had made its decision to return the initial proposal for a Master’s degree to me, I decided to research the possibility of a doctorate degree. Examining about two hundred programs at various other universities I discovered that there were at least twenty doctorate granting programs in the nation with less faculty than we had at the time. By this time we had added Kariamu Welsh, Sonja Peterson-Lewis, and C. T. Keto. We had lost Professors Odeyo Ayaga and Tran Van Dinh to early retirement. Professor Alfred Moleah was the senior professor, having been in the department the longest. However, he did not participate in the creation of the graduate program. His interests were external to the department at the time.

I attempted to add a Social Policy component to the proposal as a third concentration to answer the need for a track for those students who were interested in transforming the way we studied and researched the areas of social welfare, health, transportation needs, and other delivery mechanisms in the African American community. This Social Policy component was rejected by the university committee for both the Master’s and the doctoral program. By the time I had brought along the new faculty members, Welsh, Peterson-Lewis, and Keto, into the vision and mission of the university there was a new turn of events. A new dean, Lois Cronholm, was appointed to the College of Arts and Sciences. It would be Lois Cronholm and her assistant dean, Jayne Kribbs, who along with Barbara Brownstein, the provost, and H. Patrick Swygert, the Executive Vice President, who would become our strongest supporters, even in the face of faculty opposition. President Peter Liacouras played a major role in articulating the vision that was to give Temple the best department of its kind in the nation but he could not force the faculty to act on the proposal.

The approval of the Masters and doctoral programs by the Graduate Committee of the College of Arts and Sciences created euphoria in the National Council of Black Studies. It was a national, indeed an international achievement for Temple University. We had achieved a great victory and all of the arguments and setbacks and delays and threats of obliteration were reduced to memories, recorded, but memories nevertheless. The outsiders reviewers who had visited our campus to offer advise and suggestions included Professor James Turner of Cornell University, Professor William Nelson of Ohio State University, Professor Delores P. Aldridge of Emory University, Professor Maulana Karenga of California State University, Long Beach, and Professor Marimba Ani of Hunter College. Their advice and suggestions were incorporated into the final report.

In an attempt to forestall any objection to the admission standards of the new programs we introduced the highest grade point average requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences at the time. A student had to have a 3.0 to enter the program and a 3.6 to apply for the teaching assistantship. A year of two later we would up the admission requirement to 3.2. One of the reasons for this was that we experienced an unusually high number of applicants, contrary to the speculation of the nay-sayers who believed that there would be no or only a few students interested in the graduate program.

Approval and Recognition

In l987 when the Temple University Board of Trustees approved the proposal for a doctoral program in African American Studies it represented one of the most historical developments in American higher education. There were three reasons that came readily to mind at the time : (1) it represented a major breach in the structure of white supremacy, (2) it introduced a new paradigm, and (3) it minimized the significance of race in theoretical and conceptual innovation. In the first place the proposal to create a new doctoral program in a major white institution in the United States was a bold act. I knew it then and believe it now. The granting of terminal degrees had always been held by whites, even at predominantly black institutions where the doctorate was offered, it was usually based on some model of a white doctorate program. In other words, there were no doctorate programs in the United States not created by white people. The doctorate in African American Studies at Temple was the first time that a new terminal degree was written and proposed entirely by an African intellectual and then accepted and approved by a predominantly white institution. Secondly, the construction of a new way to approach and interrogate phenomena of the African experience created, inter alia, space for radically new interpretations of data. By introducing the idea of studying phenomena from the standpoint of African agency, that is, as subjects-acting and not simply acted upon, the Afrocentric perspective opened up an entirely fresh field of research. One could now examine the American Constitutional Conventions from the perspective of the Africans who could for the delegates or who drove their carriages. What were these black folks thinking while the white folks were thinking? Perhaps independence was a gift of Europe, but freedom was a gift of Africa. Thirdly, the introduction of the doctorate program in African American Studies shattered the idea that blacks could not propose any intellectual program from which whites could learn. Heretofore the idea that whites created and everyone else participated in their creation had been the common educational practice, but the development of the doctoral program at Temple was a radical change in that equation. It served to minimize race in the construction of concept and theory and thereby added a blow for equality in theorizing about any phenomenon related to the African experience.

New Doctoral Programs

In March 2000, twelve years after the Temple University doctorate in African American Studies there are now four universities offering the Ph.D. degree: Temple University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard University.

African symbol